Shelf Awareness

 

Shelf Awareness (2)

Screenshot of top portion of Shelf Awareness home page, accessed September 19, 2017.

“If you cannot read all your books…fondle them—peer into them, let them fall open where they will, read from the first sentence that arrests the eye, set them back on the shelves with your own hands, arrange them on your own plan so that you at least know where they are. Let them be your friends; let them, at any rate, be your acquaintances.”  –Winston Churchill

I do think it is valuable to be aware of the books on our shelves and I love this Churchill quote. But that is not the focus of this post (although I thought you would enjoy the quote).

I subscribe to various newsletters and online publications to keep up with the publishing world, and the related worlds of literary figures, bookselling, libraries, and of course, new books. I’ve recently come across a new source of book news, Shelf AwarenessI’ve included a screenshot of the home page, as it appeared on Tuesday September 19.

Shelf Awareness is designed for two groups. One group is readerswhich probably includes anyone who follows this blog. Each week they identify 25 of the best books coming out during the current week and provide reviews of those books. These include categories of fiction, mystery and thriller, science fiction and fantasy, food and wine, biography and memoir, history, business and economics, body, mind and spirit, social science, nature and environment, children and young adult, and poetry. Not all categories are included in every issue. There is also a “book candy” section with newsy tidbits, and an author interview. In the current children and young adult section, for example, you will find a review of a children’s version of It Takes a Village by Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The other group is people in the book tradeShelf Awareness describes its effort for this group as follows:

“Shelf Awareness was born out of a need to provide a range of people in the industry–booksellers, librarians, book buyers at nontraditional stores, members of the media, marketers, salespeople, publishers and others–with essential information for their businesses, including news about titles coming out now, titles getting buzz in the media, authors on major shows, movie tie-ins, sleepers, news about the business, tips on how to sell, etc. We publish daily–first thing in the morning.”

In today’s issue, I learned that Amazon is opening two new warehouses to join two others in Ohio, one near Cincinnati, and one near Cleveland in North Randall (the other warehouses are near Columbus). There is also news of a bookstore closing (openings and closings are announced on many days), the theme for University Press Week (“Knowledge Matters”), an image of the day, Top Library Recommended Titles for October, a book trailer (a pretty common site on publisher websites these days), and more.

All this may be accessed on the Shelf Awareness website, but may also come to your email inbox. The readers version is called “Shelf Awareness for Readers” and is sent out twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. The booktrade newsletter is called “Shelf Awareness Pro” and is sent out daily. There is a checkbox that allows you to subscribe to both. The subscription is free. Of course, a service like this includes advertising and “advertorials” including links to buy books (not in the reviews however).

One of the leading alternatives in this field is Publishers Weekly, which also puts out a variety of daily newsletters. While the two overlap around reviews of books and news about the publishing industry, Shelf Awareness, at this point at least, seems much more streamlined, offering a much more reader-focused newsletter, and what seems to me a wider spectrum but more concise daily news summary of the book world.

If you are interested not only in what is on your personal shelves, but what will be appearing on the shelves of your favorite bookseller, Shelf Awareness is a great new resource. Give them a visit!

Review: Daring Democracy

Daring Democracy

Daring Democracy Frances Moore Lappe’ and Adam Eichen. Boston: Beacon Press, 2017.

Summary: Responding to the concentration of political power within monied elites, the authors expose their strategy, and advocate a growing Democracy Movement to recover American democratic institutions.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing consequences of politics in the post-Citizens United era is the enlarged role that hidden financial donors in what I would propose are rival plutocracies play in our national politics. That is also a concern of the authors of this work, although they only acknowledge the plutocracy of the right. While I think that is a defect of this book, the broader case they make for an active citizen’s democracy movement to challenge the hegemony of wealth in our politics is an important one. These rival plutocracies have created a polarization of the extreme right and left that doesn’t reflect the broader center of the country that has been dis-enfranchised because of the power of money, and the rippling developments that have made it more difficult to elect candidates who do not represent one of these extremes.

Frances Moore Lappe’, who I first encountered in the 1970’s in her Diet for a Small Planet teams up with young Democracy Movement activist Adam Eichen to expose the anti-democratic developments that have brought us to this place, and the need for and promise of a grassroots Democracy Movement to recovering and preserving democracy in America. There are three “powerful ideas” upon which this book is based:

  1. Democracy is essential to address public needs and advance public goods.
  2. Democracy is possible–a real democracy accountable to people and not narrow, private interests.
  3. Each of us has a rewarding and exhilarating role to play in making democracy real.

After describing the powerful ideas that have arisen to respond to what they call “the anti-Democratic movement, the authors trace the development of this monied anti-Democratic movement. They begin with a confidential memo by Justice Lewis Powell commissioned by the U. S. Chamber of Commerce prior to his nomination to the Supreme Court. Powell expresses great concern for “free enterprise” and outlines a strategy to save it by 1) discrediting critics, branding them all as Marxists, 2) avoiding use of the word “capitalism,” substituting the rhetoric of “free” enterprise, 3) promoting a conservative presence in education, from campus speakers to textbooks, 4) gaining control of media outlets. They then describe two sets of strategies that arose from this memo. The first set of four strategies were to control the culture’s mindset:

  • Strategy 1: Command the Narrative. Think tanks pump out anti-government and pro-market gospel.
  • Strategy 2: Delegitimize Democracy’s Norms and Institutions.
  • Strategy 3: Quietly create a parallel political operation pushing the anti-democratic message with hundreds of front groups, community by community.
  • Strategy 4: Build big donors’ common purpose and coordinate their efforts to achieve the three strategies above.

The second four strategies then rig the rules to favor the monied elites:

  • Strategy 1: Open doors ever wider to big-money influence in our political system.
  • Strategy 2: Expand an army of lobbyists and usher anti-democracy forces into government.
  • Strategy 3: Reduce the voting power of those most likely to be hurt by, and therefore opposed to, the anti-democracy agenda.  Curbing voting rights and access and the ruthless gerrymandering of districts.
  • Strategy 4: Where possible, wipe out local democracy altogether. Eliminate local control, destroy worker protections.

Part three of the book outlines the agenda of the nascent Democracy Movement and gives examples of the kind of impact citizens can have. What must clearly be focused on is finance reform, limits to the power of lobbyists, and redistricting reforms, along with bringing increased transparency about funding sources. The last several chapters are motivational, describing what the authors see as a growing and diverse grassroots movement that came together around a march from Philadelphia to Washington, around resistance to anti-democratic actions in North Carolina, the Women’s March, and other actions. The final chapter is a call for daring engagement in the pursuit of democracy, and outlines additional strategies each of us might pursue. Generally, these strategies combine individual courageous initiative, finding like-minded individuals via events and social media, joining forces with similar movements, and thus amplifying one’s voice.

One thing I think these writers get right is the need for an engaged democracy–that there are a number of us who are not being heard in our highly polarized political discourse. I call us “the adults” who believe a good society has to work for all of us, across race, social class, economic status, religion and gender. We realize it won’t be perfect for anyone, but that good solutions don’t leave anyone out, and the contributions of everyone are considered vital to our society’s health. It has to address concerns of both conservatives and liberals. Most of us are not extremists in any form–Marxist, fascist, anti-facist, you name it. We’re Americans who still think a democratic republic is worth preserving and enhancing, and it won’t be if a monied plutocracy controls it. We are the people we’ve been waiting for, whether young or old, and it is time to make our voices heard and not leave our politics and governance to the extremes.

At the same time, this work left me with two concerns. One is that the authors, (and Lappe’, a veteran activist should know better) do not adequately articulate a long term vision of pursuing democracy. The “anti-democracy” movement they describe was a disciplined, long-term effort by highly committed and focused alliances of individuals, and not simply the influence of a lot of money. Unless there is similar long-term discipline and focus to the democracy movement they envision, their efforts will be little more than attention-deficit disordered emotivist ventilation.

More concerning is that this work at best makes passing references to major funding of progressive causes, which was eclipsed in 2016. But to authentically represent “the adults” in the middle, the authors needed to denounce and expose the monied interests on both extremes in American politics, the elites on both extremes that have controlled our political conversation. Not doing so exposes this movement to the charge of being “stalking horses” for these progressive causes, particularly when they move beyond questions of electoral reform to social issues supported by the left while concerns of thoughtful moderate conservatives are ignored. I would suggest that until the writers do so, this proposal is not democratic enough.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

 

 

 

Review: Restoring the Soul of the University

restoring the soul

Restoring the Soul of the UniversityPerry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman and Todd C. Ream. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2017.

Summary: Traces the history of the fragmentation of the modern university including its loss of soul, the impacts that this has on various facets of university of life, and the role theology can have in restoring that soul and healing that fragmentation.

One of the clearest conclusions in reading contemporary literature and analysis of higher education is that there is no clear idea of what a university is for. Or rather, there are multiple contested ideas from educating for citizenship, to provide the skills needed to work in today’s knowledge economy, to serving as a critical adjunct to that economy by working alongside government and industry to tailor curriculum to aid economic growth. Then there are the rare individuals who still insist that universities have something to do with helping young men and women explore life’s larger issues, life’s meaning and purpose, helping them live into what it means to be fully human and part of the human community.

The authors of this work, following Chancellor Clark Kerr’s description of the multiversity, propose that all of this is indicative of an institution that has lost its soul, that there is no shared animating purpose, no story that frames its sense of mission and its values. All the different constituencies that are competing to shape the university have fragmented and there is nothing to mediate between these fragmented identities.

The book consists of three parts. The first part traces the history of the university from its beginnings with Hugh of St. Victor and the University of Paris. The vision began with a vision of the academic castle with theology preeminent over the disciplines, in which learning occurred through both meditation upon and disputation around authoritative texts. Unfortunately, making theology preeminent tended to isolate theology from engagement with the other disciplines. This flaw widened as theology and philosophy became separate disciplines, increasingly not in conversation with each other. Then in the late 18th through the 19th centuries, European universities were increasingly controlled not by church, but by government. The beginnings of American universities seemed to hark back to the early vision. But after the Civil War, the European ideal of the research university and the rise of science took over. From a set curriculum, the elective plan proposed by Charles Eliot turned the university into an academic buffet of courses rather than a common curriculum. Universities became simply a collection of departments competing for students attentions leading to the secular multiversity of the present.

Part two explores the impacts of this fragmentation. First of all is the fragmentation of the life of a professor, torn between teaching, research, publishing pressures, and service, between one’s institution, and one’s subdiscipline. With no common story to give curricular coherence, curriculum increasingly is defined by majors with general requirements a faint echo of a once common curriculum. The competition for students leads to a rise of student services outside the purview of the faculty and a tension between curricular and co-curricular life. The growing size of universities, the expansion and sophistication of services, and government requirements add a new group of people to the mix, administrators. Lacking a significant narrative to bind the university together, athletics, and particularly football at many institutions serves as the multiversity’s new religion. The rise of new technologies and entrepreneurial figures has resulted in new delivery systems in online and for-profit education, challenging traditional models.

The last part of this work re-imagines what a university, particularly a Christian university, might look like if theology was granted a central and formative role in the life of the university. To begin with this assumes a willingness of theologians to open up their conversation to other academics and for academics in the other disciplines to be open to explore theological implications for the paradigms and practices of their disciplines. It means not penalizing theologians whose academic work reflects this interdisciplinary engagement rather than narrowly focus in their own theological sub-disciplines. Their vision goes far beyond a virtuous veneer to the standard practices of teaching, research and service. They write:

“Although we agree with the importance of practicing virtue in the academic calling, we contend that any approach to integrating virtue must not prioritize teaching over scholarship or service but should instead prioritize the role of the triune God and God’s theological story in defining, directing, and empowering the virtues that sustain excellence in these practices and help promote flourishing academic communities. We doubt broadly defined virtues on which we all agree can sufficiently reorient the academic vocation. After all, professors need a compelling identity and story that will motivate them to acquire certain virtues. Instead, Christians must think about virtues such as faith, hope, and love as well as other fruits of the Spirit, in the light of a theological narrative and realities that usually do not enter standard secular reasoning” (pp. 245-246).

The authors then explore how this reconsideration of theological narrative and reality shape academic disciplines, co-curricular life and academic leadership. The authors’ vision is that it may be possible, at least within Christian universities to recover the “soul” of the university in understanding how the Christian story informs all of life in the university.

In assessing this work, one must first acknowledge the valuable work the authors have done both in summarizing the history of the university, helping us understand how we have reached our present place, and the shape (or shapelessness) of the fragmentation that is the defining realities of our present-day universities, Christian, private, or public. They give us a valuable survey, which some will dispute in detail, but in broad outlines does much to inform someone wanting to understand higher education today.

For those working in the Christian college and university setting, what the authors assert should not be cause for much controversy, in principle. In fact, the forces that have shaped these schools as mirror images of the secular university are not insubstantial–whether we are talking about the shape of the theological guild, the disciplines, athletics (as the authors, two of whom are Baylor faculty well know), and the rising co-curricular bureaucracy. There is a need for a combination of humility and vision shared by university faculty and leaders from these various sectors if this is ever to have a chance of being realized. Perhaps it might grow from “test plots” where people with a larger vision come together.

What hope is there for secular, public universities? I cannot visualize an institutional transformation that “Christianizes” such places. But might it first of all be helpful for Christians within these “academic villages,” whether students, faculty, staff, or administrations to begin to think more rigorously about how the narrative of their faith ought to shape their daily life and presence in this place? Might there be significant value in private and, when appropriate, public conversations that reflect how theology might inform and enrich our inquiry and practice in every dimension of life? Might students, trying to connect the various “reality bites” of their lives find in the Christian story, the “liberating arts” (in the authors words) that bring coherence to both their studies and their lives? Might this collaboration of students, faculty, theologians, and ministry leaders cultivate a counter-cultural, lived story that in proximate ways witnesses to “the restored soul” that is the mark of the Christian story?

I cannot guess what difference this might lead to with these institutions. But Christians in these places must consider what story will shape how they live. The paucity or richness of the theological narrative that shapes these lives will determine whether they will be fragmented or will flourish. The case these writers make is one all of us working around the world of higher education will do well to heed.

 

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Black Monday

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Photo by Stu Spivak [CC BY-SA 2.0] via Flickr

Most of the posts I’ve written about Youngstown are about good memories. This one isn’t, but September 19, 2017 marks forty years since Black Monday. Youngstown never has given up, but it never has been the same.

On Monday, September 19, 1977, Youngstown Sheet and Tube, no longer locally controlled, issued this statement:

“Youngstown Sheet and Tube Company, a subsidiary of Lykes Corporation, announced today that it is implementing steps immediately to concentrate a major portion of its steel production at the Indian Harbor Works near Chicago. . . .The company now employs 22,000 people. The production cut-back at the Campbell Works will require the lay-off or termination of approximately 5,000 employees in the Youngstown workers.” (cited in Robert Bruno, Steelworker Alley, p.9).

Five thousand people and their families faced the lost of a major income source, and work generations had counted on for a career. Between 1979 and 1980, U. S. Steel left Youngstown. By the mid-1980’s Republic Steel declared bankruptcy and ceased operations. Like a rock thrown into a pond, the big splash of Black Monday rippled throughout the Youngstown economy. It is estimated the area lost 40,000 manufacturing jobs and 400 satellite businesses.

There were probably multiple causes, including suburban malls and plazas, but McKelvey’s (Higbee’s) closed a couple years later, leaving my father without a job at age 59. Many younger workers left Youngstown to find work in other cities, many moving south and west. Older workers like my dad found whatever they could locally, to get by until retiring, usually at much lower wages. At the time, my wife and I were starting out our lives together and living in Toledo (a city that suffered similar catastrophic losses of automotive manufacturing jobs later on). When we heard the news, we realized that we would not be returning to the same Youngstown that we had grown up in when we visited parents. Gone was the glow of blast furnaces lighting up the valley at night.

I could go over all the history of attempts to re-start the mills, or lure manufacturers to Youngstown, or talk about all the reasons the mills failed. Others have hashed all that out. All I can say is I’ve never had much tolerance for those who blame workers or followers or circumstances for failure, particularly if the ones doing the blaming are management or leadership (I say that as one who has worked in management).

When someone dear to you dies, you grieve and face how life will be different after the loss. I remember the anniversaries of my parent’s deaths. As the years pass, I probably think less of the loss than of what we had. I also realize we can never go back to that life, or bring our parents back.

Perhaps that’s what the fortieth anniversary of Black Monday is like, as well. We grieve what the Valley lost, remember what was good, and maybe learn from the past so we don’t repeat it. We learn not to put all our eggs in one economic basket, and that we no longer can count on a particular type of job always being there for ourselves and our kids. We learn that ultimately the company won’t look out for us, nor can we count on the government to look out for us. And maybe we remember that our greatest resources are still our faith, our families and friends, and our own hard work, initiative, and a Youngstown “stick-to-it-ive-ness” that doesn’t give up, but keeps on getting up.

For those who will be in the Youngstown area on September 19, the Mahoning Valley Historical Society is hosting “Remembering Black Monday: 40 Years Later” at the Tyler History Center from 7:00 to 8:30 pm. A panel of historians and community leaders will discuss the impact and legacy event. This is a free event. More information is available at the Mahoning Valley Historical Society website.

Should We Let This Prisoner Out of the Academic Dungeon?

Hope_in_a_Prison_of_Despair

Hope in a Prison of Despair, Evelyn De Morgan [Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

Just what prisoner are we talking about, you might ask. I would suggest this is no ordinary burglar, extortionist, or murderer. Nor are we talking about your ordinary academic criminals–the plagiarizer, the reactionary, the transgressor who forgets trigger warnings. Rather, we are speaking of one who once occupied an eminent place in the order of the academy. Some would contend that this one gave a kind of order or coherence to the academy. So much so that this one was spoken of as Queen of the Sciences. Her name was Theology and she has fallen from the pinnacle of the university to the dungeon. Many don’t even wish to acknowledge her existence.

The image of theology in the dungeon is one I am borrowing from Restoring the Soul of the University by Perry L. Glanzer, Nathan F. Alleman, and Todd C. Ream. The authors explore the fragmented character of modern universities and college, referred to by Clark Kerr as the “multiversity,” and contend that this is a consequence of the dethroning of theology from her place as Queen of the Sciences. With this dethroning, they claim the university has lost the unifying story of God at the center that connects the various disciplines as elements of a common story. Their project is a modest one, to bring theology out of the dungeon and make her at least a conversation partner with other scholars in the Christian higher education context. No ambition proposals to “reclaim the nation’s universities for God!” here.

I find myself wondering if the theologians have come to like the dungeon, and perhaps have even ceased to see it as one. They have their own students, publishers for their books, journals for their articles, canons of scholarship, and academic conferences to celebrate and give structure to it all. There are subdisciplines within the theological guild, and conversations in a particular jargon only the initiated readily grasp–perhaps.

I’ve spent my career working in collegiate ministry in public university settings. From many conversations, my sense is that while most don’t want theology to be a Queen, there is an openness to theology as a conversation partner–particularly if that can be a real dialogue. Might those concerned with the interpretation of biblical texts have much to share and much to learn from those whose work is interpreting other kinds of texts, whether historical or literary. Might those who really have looked at the origin stories of scripture with a careful scholarly eye be the best to engage with those considering scientific studies of origins? Might those in health care benefit greatly from the wisdom those working with issues of formation have about seasons of life–how might we both live and die well?

I think the great fear in academia would be some form of asserting authority or re-asserting control. I think this is a needless fear. What is the danger in mutual inquiry and learning? What is the danger in humble listening to and instructing one another? Might there be “lost learnings” on both sides from which all might profit? And if there are fears about this happening in the public setting (although I’ve found this possible even here), why not start with schools affiliated with theological seminaries?

Universities arose out of cathedral schools and the idea that there was a fundamental unity underlying all knowledge arose from the belief that all knowledge had a common source and origin in a Creator God. Not all will agree with this today by any means. But is the idea one that should be confined to an intellectual dungeon? Should there not be a chance to see whether the prisoner in the dungeon has a cogent and coherent story to tell? And if the prisoner is given the chance, will s/he emerge ready both to listen and to speak?

Review: Thank You For Being Late

Thank you for being late

Thank You For Being LateThomas L. Friedman. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.

Summary: Discusses three “accelerations (computer-related technology, globalization, and climate change), how these might re-shape our world for ill or good, and the case for pausing, reflecting, and creating communities of trust working for the common good.

Whether you agree with him or not, an interview with Tom Friedman is always a fascinating conversation, at least for some of us. It was on Charlie Rose, my wife was watching while I had dropped off to sleep, and the next day, she told me, “we have to get Thank You For Being Late.” It didn’t stop there. After my wife started reading this, she said, “you have to read this and write one of your reviews on it.” So dear, I have, and I am, and let’s see what you think.

Friedman starts by explaining his title, which is his response to those who are late for meetings with him. In our accelerating world, time to pause, to reflect on our moment in history, and our lives, is an increasingly precious opportunity. Put away the smartphone and just be. Then, in the remainder of the chapter he recounts his encounter with an Ethiopian parking attendant who asks Friedman’s help with his blog. It turns out that he hosts a site devoted to a pro-democracy take on the politics and economics of his home country. Friedman contends that his columns mix his own values, priorities and aspirations, his analysis of the big forces, “the Machine” that are shaping events, and the impacts on peoples and cultures. And as he does this with Bojia, his new Ethiopian friend, he begins to reflect on these.

Part two of this book is concerned with three big forces he believes are impacting people and cultures. He looks at 2007 as a critical year–the debut of the first iPhone, the launch of the Android, Qualcomm’s 3G technology enabling book downloads on Kindles, IBM’s Watson, non-silicon based processors, the beginning of an accelerating curve of solar power usage. He sees this as an inflection point where technological innovation exceeds human adaptability, requiring new ways of learning and governing. This opens a several-chapter discussion of the first key force, technology, whose acceleration is reflected in Moore’s law on the doubling of processor speeds every 18-24 months, at decreasing costs, that has made for a tremendous explosions because of software, networking, the convergence of smartphones and computers, and what Friedman calls the “supernova” of “flow” that makes possible massive amounts of storage in “the cloud”, all kinds of ways to utilize that data (including nefarious, as the Equifax hack, and others underscore), with incredible implications for commerce globally.

This leads to his discussion of the second force, the global market, where being in “the flow” makes unprecedented collaboration and crowd-sourced innovation possible, but also increasingly automated financial flows that under some circumstances might lead to drastic computer-initiated market swings. At the same time, this can lead to incredible knowledge flows, such as MOOCs, making courses on nearly every subject available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and also the export of the propaganda of terror, linking isolated individuals in developed countries with terror cells.

The third force is climate change and species loss, environmental changes that are sweeping the globe. He notes a series of boundaries we are breaching or in danger of breaching–climate change, biodiversity, deforestation, bio-geochemical flows, ocean acidification, freshwater use, atmospheric aerosols, and introduction of novel entities from chemicals we’ve invented to nuclear waste.

Friedman is ever the optimist and the third part of this book explores both technological and political innovations on the global scale that channel these forces for good, and in the chapter on “Control vs. Kaos” for ill. He has a chapter on “Mother Nature as Political Mentor” where he has Mother Nature making a laundry list of policy recommendations to delight the heart of anyone on the center-left of American politics, and will be dismissed by the right.

What was most fascinating for me amid this ramble through technology, globalization, and climate science, ground Friedman has traveled in other books is where he ends up in his last chapters. He essentially commends whatever our religion’s version is of Sunday school to teach us the Golden Rule and its application in life, and a return to “politics as local” revisiting his childhood days in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, and the continuing heritage of a politics beyond partisanship that forges relationships of trust with business and civic leaders, and presses into seeking the common good of a community.

When Friedman finishes, you feel he has touched everything including the kitchen sink. All of it is quite fascinating, and yet hard to hold together. Perhaps that is his point. Technology, globalization, changes in the environment are all accelerating–change is happening fast. We can run frantically to keep up. Or perhaps we would do better to pause. It is particularly intriguing that his most profound recommendations do not have to do with big government, even more technology or sweeping global environmental agreements, as much as I think he would be in sympathy with all of these. It is that we need to change in our own behavior, and in our habits of community. We need to return to real communities rather than virtual echo chambers and move from national posturing to local governing.

What begins as a survey of science, business, and technology ends in a kind of quest for God and a well-ordered society. An exploration of the accelerating future ends in a reflective search for spiritual and community roots. It feels to me that Friedman is searching for God knows what, and I find my self thinking, “indeed, God knows, but will we listen?”

 

Review: Forbearance

Forbearance

Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable ChurchJames Calvin Davis. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2017.

Summary: Commends the practice of and virtues related to forbearance, as encouraged by Paul in Ephesians and Colossians as an ethic for dealing with theological differences within the church.

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” (Colossians 3:13, NIV)

“Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” (Ephesians 4:2, NIV).

The political landscape of the U.S. and other countries is not the only place where one might find division and rancor. Sometimes this arises within church denominations and even individual congregations. At times, this can be over something no more significant that the color of the new sanctuary carpet. At other times, these differences may be over matters of theological conviction, often ones carrying personal consequences. It is deeply troubling to see fractures and fragmentation in the one body of Christ. Currently, we are witnessing such occurrences around the Church’s understanding of human sexuality, and particularly its beliefs about lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and other expressions of sexual orientation and identity, and the kinds of practices that will be affirmed (or not) and how the church will welcome and embrace persons who identify in these ways.

James Calvin Davis writes to churches facing these disagreements as a pastor of a mainline Protestant church and commends the biblical practice of forbearance, commended by the apostle Paul in the passages quoted above. It is clear from references to LGBT persons, and theological differences concerning LGBT sexuality, that this is the particular concern out of which this work arises, although the principles Davis enunciates, and the importance of cultivating the virtues related to forbearance have far wider implications, not only for church but for society.

He begins with a brief exegesis of the passages I have cited and discusses how important the practice of forbearance is as an alternative to destructive forms of theological conflict in the church. He then, in chapters 2 through 6, explores five important virtues implicit in the practice of forbearance: humility, patience, wisdom, faithfulness, and friendship grounded in love.

Perhaps two of the most important chapters are 7 and 8, which address concerns of truth and justice. Concerning truth, he discusses the importance of taking truth and conviction seriously, but also being open to study, to learning from others, and to changing one’s convictions. Likewise, his chapter on justice addresses what may be the most significant critique of forbearance, that it is commending a form of gradualism or “waiting” against which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Forbearance is not the same as waiting but rather a posture of how one deals with those with whom they differ even as they press for justice.

Davis concludes this work with arguing that for Christians to learn the practice of forbearance in disagreements within the church may be crucial to contribute to recovering civility in our public squares and political discourse. Clearly it stands to reason that if the church that confesses “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” cannot do this, how may we expect it of a broader society. It has been argued that the forms of congregational and representative government developed in the churches of the Reformation served as a training ground for a democratic republic. Might something like this pertain in our own day as well?

There is much with which I resonated in this argument about forbearance. I’ve long been troubled by how easily churches have divided from each other, and how such divisions undermine the church’s witness. That said, I found a subtle subtext in this work that concerned me that Davis’s formulation of “forbearance” will neither accomplish what is hoped for and may leave the church more vulnerable to apostasy.

First of all, there is a subtle implication in Davis’s writing that should churches practice forbearance, this will not only engender greater respect between differing parties, but that eventually they will embrace more progressive perspectives, rather than those historically embraced by the church. Davis does not seem to envision a process where progressives come to re-affirm a historic position, or a new synthesis that embraces both historical understandings of theological conviction coupled with a compassionate and consistent ethic that affirms the dignity of all.  For those on the historic side of some of the conflicts Davis discusses, his proposal could feel like a slightly more genteel form of a war of attrition.

It is also troubling to me this doesn’t adequately (at least for me) speak to how the Church responds to issues from racism to nationalism to the resurgence of gnostic versions of Christianity that the church rejected early on as inconsistent with the Incarnation. Are we to forbear those who commend these beliefs in the church? Scripture uses different language, that of refutation for such beliefs, and those who hold them.

I found myself deeply torn reading this work. I am in great sympathy with the virtues the author commends and think that there are many disputes that might be resolved, or where we could “agree to disagree” while focusing on central truths where we share common ground. Yet I’m troubled both by the bias in Davis’s argument, and what I think is an insufficient recognition that forbearance and vigilance must walk hand in hand. The same apostle Davis commends also writes, “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers.” (1Timothy 4:16, NIV). Forbearance is one part of a “both-and” that includes vigilance. This is what it means to be a community shaped by both grace and truth.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Simple Prayer

Simple prayer

Simple PrayerCharlie Dawes (foreword by Mark Batterson). Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2017.

Summary: Helps us understand how the “simple” prayers of scripture and those from our hearts may lead us into deep relationship and communion with God.

I suspect that any of us who have set ourselves on the path of following Christ have struggled with prayer. For me it has been the movement from worrying about having the “right” words, to wrestling with things like prayer lists with long recitals of requests to beginning to wonder if I needed so many words and discovering that I didn’t need to fill the silences. Somewhere it dawned on me that the prayer the Lord taught his disciples can be spoken in fifteen seconds, and yet volumes have been written about it.

Charlie Dawes, in this book, observes that prayer can be simple, and yet not simplistic, that in prayer, deep can commune with deep without lots of words. Much like time with a person we love, we may enjoy a deep intimacy captured in a few words: “Lord have mercy,” “Your kingdom come,” “Forgive us our sins,” and “Father, forgive them.” In the Introduction to this book, Dawes writes,

“Simple prayers are all around us. They are found in Scripture. They are hidden in our daily lives. They swirl around our hearts and minds and rest on the tips of our tongues. Simple prayers are for both the novice seeker and the well-worn traveler on the journey of faith. Where do you find yourself at this moment? Are you new to faith? Have you been on this faith walk for years? Do you feel like you are losing your way? Do you feel the wind at your back propelling you into unchartered waters and have a rising anxiety about the unknown? Maybe you are looking for a way to deepen your prayer life. Then it is time to simply pray. We can trust that before we even articulate our thoughts, emotions, or needs, God already knows and desires to respond. A simple prayer paves the way for us to know and be known by God” (pp. 9-10).

The author begins by saying more about what he means by simple prayer, which is often the use of a single word, or short phrase, often drawn from scripture to capture  our particular longing for God and God’s presence. Then in succeeding chapters he writes about different simple prayers–the prayer of the heart, the prayer of faith, the prayer of forgiveness, the prayer of unity, the prayer of restoration, the prayer of finding your way.

Chapter seven focuses on simple words to pray–a single word or very short phrase. Here is one example:

“You know me. To be known by God is more than saying that God is aware of us; it is to say that God desires to inhabit every detail of our lives. God is not looking for a social media relationship with us, a relationship from afar. A need for intimacy is woven into us, and we all wander until we find our home in God. I remember watching the sitcom Cheers when I was younger. I loved when Norm would cross the threshold of the bar, and everyone greeted him with a loud, “Norm.” He was beloved, he was known. Take a moment and pray this simple prayer: You know me. Allow each repetition of this prayer to provide more and more assurance to your heart that you are indeed known by God. Your actions cannot undo this and you cannot earn it. You are not known as the sum of your skills or achievements. You are not embraced by the love of God because you have accumulated wealth or possess status. You are known because you are the beloved of God” (pp. 111-112).

What I appreciated about this work was that it articulated a way of praying focused less on methods or tasks, and more on intimacy with the one with whom we engage. It suggested what it might look like to “pray without ceasing” where we carry a word or phrase that we breathe before God throughout the day, like the Jesus prayer. This is prayer which liberates us from the temptation to “be heard for our many words,” tiresome for both the person praying and the one listening–what a mercy that God is so patient with so many of us! It is prayer without pretense or performance, just a few honest words that, like the Lord’s Prayer, may express volumes.

I don’t think this is all that may be said of prayer. Not all our models of prayer in scripture reduce to a word, a phrase or a few phrases. But if you have found the world of many words wearying and long for a more unvarnished, honest, and intimate relationship with God, these “simple prayers” may take you into new depths.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Worm Ouroboros

the worm ouroboros

The Worm OuroborosE. R. Eddison. New York: Open Road Media, 2014 (originally published 1922).

Summary: A heroic fantasy of the warfare between Witchland and Demonland, including the quest to rescue Goldry Bluszco, after he is banished by spell to a remote mountain top in revenge for defeating and killing King Gorice XI of the Witches in a wrestling match.

This is a work of heroic fantasy that was praised by the likes of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Ursula LeGuin as inspiration for their own work. And certainly the ideas of transport to an alien world, heroic quests, and great, and often seemingly hopeless, contests against evil powers find their roots in this work.

I came across this work first around the time I discovered The Lord of the Rings and saw Tolkien’s commendation. I never picked it up until recently, perhaps because of the obscurity of the title. Ouroboros refers to the worm (a term often used for dragons or serpents) who swallow their own tail, forming an endless ring. It is a symbol worn by the king of Witchland, and the idea of an endless cycle figures in the conclusion of the work, which I will not give away for those who haven’t read it.

The story is told through the eyes of one “Lessingham” who is transported from Earth to Mercury, where this story takes place. After the early chapters, Lessingham disappears from the story, not to reappear at the conclusion. The story really begins with brothers Juss, Spitfire, and Goldry Bluszco, and Brandoch Daha, the Lords of Demonland receiving the diminutive ambassador of Witchland who asserts the Kingship of Gorice XI, King of Witchland over Demonland. The Lords of Demonland decide to contest this via a wrestling match between Gorice, famed for his wrestling prowess, and Goldry, a formidable wrestler in his own right. If Goldry wins, they submit; if not, they retain their independence. Goldry defeats and kills Gorice XI, and in vengence, his son casts a spell that transports and imprisons Goldry on a distant icy mountain top.  Juss and Brandoch think he is being held in Carce, the capitol of Witchland, and only learn in defeat and escape through an ally, of the spell that has sent him far away.

This sets up the remainder of the book, divided between the quest to rescue Goldry, and the wars against Witchland. Juss and Brandoch Daha pursue a year-long quest, including a battle against a terrifying manticore taking them to the mountain castle of Queen Sophonisba, who tells them Goldry can only be reached by finding the egg of a hippogriff, back in Demonland. Meanwhile, Spitfire unsuccessfully resists an attack by Duke Corsus on Witchland. He takes the castle, Krothering, of Brandoch Daha, and lays it waste. Brandoch’s sister escapes when Gro, a spurned adviser of Corsus turns traitor and helps her get free. Ultimately, Gro will turn traitor once more. Juss and Brandoch return in time to expel Corsus and the forces of Witchland, then Juss finds the hippogriff egg, rescues Goldry, leading, after defeat of the fleet of Witchland, to the climactic battle before the gates of Carce.

The book is not an easy read. The language is influenced by Elizabethan English (an odd choice for events taking place on Mercury), including written texts in period English (which sometimes look like the writing of someone who is spelling challenged–which may help in deciphering it). Some may contend that this is far simpler than Tolkien’s passages in Elvish, the languages of Dwarves, Orcs, and the Dark Tower. Some might complain about all the different names and kingdoms (in addition to Witchland and Demonland, there are Ghouls, Goblins, Imps and Pixies!). Eddison helps us somewhat with a chronology summarizing the relations of all of these at the end of the work.

What I struggled with, and perhaps it is an artifact of the heroic fantasy genre, is that I do not see any of the characters grow through the quests and battles they face. Courage and heroism there is in abundance, as is deceit, betrayal, and dark arts. But in the end, the horrors and travails of war, and the conquest of evil do not seem to eventuate in the love of peace or the wise pursuit of a better world. The main characters only seem to be defined by the quests and battles, perhaps an earlier version of Klingons who think it a shame to die a peaceful death.

On the one hand, it raises the question of whether tension, or some threat, is necessary to out the best in human beings, or whatever human-like races these beings are. And yet, these figures cannot envision quests that don’t involve killing or dying or battle. Is there not also a heroism that heals, that pursues peace, goodness, truth, and beauty–sometimes in the resistance of evil and deceit and ugliness–but also in the creation of cultural goods? As influential as this story was, what I saw in Tolkien that I miss in Eddison is a richer heroism, one capable of growth, that fights evil when it must but loves hearth, home, song, and good food, and a world where these might flourish.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Home Savings

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Home Savings Building, Photo by Jack Pierce, 2013 (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr

Growing up on the West Side of Youngstown, the most recognizable feature of downtown Youngstown that I could see from my home was the main offices of Home Savings and Loan. When I was young, I had the back bedroom in our house, which faced east toward downtown. I used to love looking over the valley. One Christmas, I received a telescope as a gift. It was fun looking at the Home Savings Building, and the clock tower on top. If memory serves me correctly at that time, there were neon signs with the name “Home Savings” that would alternately light up on the north and south, and east and west sides of the building.

Whenever I look at old pictures of West Federal Street, you almost always see the Home Savings and Loan building at the far west end, presiding over the financial fortunes of the businesses along that street, as it were. While some of the great old theaters and the McKelvey buildings have been torn down, this main branch remains standing strong.

Home Savings was started in 1889 and the “Savings and Loan” name reflected its mission of providing a safe place to deposit funds at interest and to borrow money to purchase homes, and for other purposes. The bank helped many generations of working class people to realize the dream of home ownership. One of the encouraging things is that despite economic troubles in the Valley, the bank has continued to grow. In 1998 the bank went through a mutual-to-stock conversion, setting up a parent holding company, the United Community Financial Corporation. At the same time, a Home Savings Charitable Foundation was set up and focuses on areas of education, health care and disadvantaged children and adults, according to the “history” section of the Home Savings website. In 2014, United Community Financial Corporation acquired Premier Bank & Trust, a regional bank in the Canton area, bringing its total number of offices to 35 and its current assets to approximately $2.5 billion. In 2016, they created the Home Savings Insurance Group, acquiring a couple local insurance agencies. In 2017, to reflect an increasing involvement in commercial services, the name was changed to Home Savings Bank. While most of Home Savings offices are still in northeast Ohio, there are some in north central Ohio, and loan offices in Cleveland, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, Morgantown, West Virginia, Toledo, and in my own backyard of Worthington, in suburban Columbus.

Some of my memories of my father’s last years involved Home Savings. I was his financial power of attorney and when I began to manage his affairs, one of the things we needed to do was close out his safe deposit box at the main branch. We went down to the basement where the safe deposit boxes were located, off of a richly paneled lobby. I deeply appreciated the respect the bank personnel showed to my elderly father as we completed this transaction. He also had funds on deposit with the bank and, once again, I found the people at the bank great to work with, both before and after my father’s passing.

In an age when it is easy to live in a town where all the banks are from places like Chicago, or New York, or a city somewhere else in Ohio, it is encouraging to see Home Savings still going strong as a Youngstown-based bank. Let’s hope that is a sign for other Youngstown-based businesses.